Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Richard Garriott, private astronaut and computer games developer

'Nasa was right on my doorstep'
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The Independent Online

Richard Garriott, 46, is the son of the Skylab astronaut Owen Garriott and is known as "Captain British" in the Ultima computer games which he designed. Currently training at Star City in Russia, he will fly in September on a Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station as a private astronaut with a $30,000,000 ticket. He will return to earth with Sergey Volkov, who is also the son of a space pioneer.

I grew up believing that everyone was going to go to space. My father, a visiting professor of electrical engineering at Cambridge University, was selected as an astronaut in 1965 and we moved to Houston, Texas.

Webster is a little town situated next to Nasa and literally my right and left neighbours were astronauts. About half the fathers of students at Webster Elementary School were involved with Nasa.

It was a big blow when a physician at the Nasa base, where they wanted to study our family, said to me, "I'm sorry, your eyesight is so bad you will never be a Nasa astronaut." I thought: "You can't tell me I can't go into space!" (I've now had laser surgery and we're studying my vision and internal pressure; my bad eyesight turns out to be of scientific interest and not an impediment to my travel in space.) The school had a very good science curriculum and it really excelled – way ahead of its time – in the way it encouraged independent thinking. Every year, we participated in a science competition, and in my first year I did a display of a cicada killer, a type of wasp which kills an insect and takes it into its underground chambers. In my last two years at high school my projects made it all the way to international competitions.

I was at Webster Elementary from the age of five to 11 and then I went to Webster Intermediate for three years and after that to Clear Creek High School.

One of the particularly visionary things at high school was that personal computers had come out and, although it was too soon for the school to develop a place for them on the curriculum, they saw my early interest and allowed me to have my own class – with no teacher, no fellow students, no assignments and no tests.

I would develop my own plan at the beginning of the semester and at the end I would make a presentation of what I had done, which was to develop a programme, consisting of mostly creative games.

These would be more sophisticated than the commercial games available.

Right after I left high school, the last game I had written there was good enough for the owner of a local computer store to sell it. One of my discs found its way to a national distributor and this game sold 30,000 copies, earning me $150,000 (£76,000). I produced three games in total for other publishers, until my brother said: "Why don't we form a company?"

I never finished my electrical engineering degree at the University of Texas at Austin and left in the third year of my four-year course. Each game went on to sell more than the previous one and the company grew rapidly.

It became clear that it wasn't going to be possible to concentrate on school and business. Everyone in my family has advanced degrees and most of them believed my business was a windfall that would last only a limited amount of time; eventually I would have to go back to school and get a real job. That was 25 years ago and it has finally been settled that I'm not going to get a real job.

Primary schoolchildren can enter a competition to design an experiment which Richard will carry out during his 10 days in space. Another competition asks secondary schoolchildren to describe the development of space tourism. (Closing date 20 June. Details on www.richardinspace.com)

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